Max Hodak Writings

The brain dreams

August 2020

The track The Four Agreements by Matthew Dekay on Anjunadeep 11 – which, by the way, is absolutely fantastic, definitely one of the best albums of 2020, Jody Wisternoff and James Grant are clearly geniuses – has a fascinating dialogue track from Miguel Ruiz:

What you are seeing and hearing right now is nothing but a dream. You are dreaming right now in this moment. You’re dreaming with the brain awake.

Dreaming is the main function of the mind, and the mind dreams twenty-four hours a day. It dreams when the brain is awake, and it also dreams when the brain is asleep.

The difference is that when the brain is awake, there is a material frame that makes us perceive things in a linear way. When we go to sleep we do not have the frame, and the dream has the tendency to change constantly.


The whole thing is great and I suggest you go listen to it, but these first few lines are are really more than just platitudes. These things sound like hippie nonsense, but in some really non-trivial way, they are true!

One of the central results of relativity is that the universe does not have a “coordinate system”, only a way of measuring distances between events. You can make the numerical results of any particular measurement (though not the relative values of multiple measurements) be anything you want by choosing different coordinate systems, or more generally, measurement bases, and they are all equally valid, true descriptions of the world.

This is going to sound very obvious, but it was a big shift in my understanding of the world when I really internalized that it was true: it is completely equivalent to say that the world exists out there and to say that the world exists in our brains. Our experience of reality is completely fabricated by the brain and can change in profound and dramatic ways when the brain changes. Oliver Sacks’s books are wonderful explorations of this through incredible clinical case studies of how the brain fails.

Where did the big bang happen? Most people have this intuitive sense that the big bang, a singularity, happened at a point in space and the universe has been expanding ever since, and therefore there must be some “center of the universe,” but this is wrong. The big bang actually happened everywhere all at once – it is what you get if you trace all of the possible world lines back to a point where they converge, but this is not a point you could identify in some sense of physical space. Similarly, we have no idea how big the universe is, because we can only see as far as light would have had time to travel since the big bang. Our visible universe is a 14 billion light year bubble centered on us, though we are not the center of the universe.

It is essential to understand that we are not seeing anything out there: we are seeing information-carrying energy that has arrived here. Our intuitive understanding of perception is completely inside-out backwards. Even our faculties of reason and logic, which allow us to infer whether something is true or even sensical, stem from our brain, and if they are altered our understanding of truth and logic could be altered. Whether or not they are some absolute property of the universe – the existence of math makes me think that they are – our ability to process them is certainly not absolute and can change in ways we might have trouble even detecting. (I increasingly suspect that phenomena like QAnon are reflections of deep differences in neural processing.)

I harp a lot on the idea that your brain is, in very deep and fundamental ways, you. But it’s even more than that: your brain dreams up your whole universe.